A Parable Worth Remembering

Most families have some set of stories they tell each other over and over again. Generally people think they are just getting together and sharing a good laugh over a funny story, or a hardship turned into laughter with the passage of time. But repeating these stock fables is a way of telling the story of the family itself, and of binding family members together in shared reminiscences that may also encode a set of shared values.

Sometimes the moralistic family story telling can be limiting and constricting, as when one comes home from the fancy new life with wider horizons carefully built up over a period of years, only to find no! That family story telling puts you right back in your place as "the littlest" who was never listened to, or the one who screwed up all the chances that were offered (never mind whatever success was achieved since those teenage years), or the awkward goofball, even though you are now a CEO of a fortune 500 company.

But sometimes you want to listen a little more carefully. For one, you can learn things about your family from those dusty, creaky old stories. For another, some of those fabulistic morals and values might just be worth hanging onto. Here's one from my Aunt Betty.

Aunt Betty married outside our Slovak ethnic group. She married an Italian man! (And thus was my diet growing up made all the richer, thanks to the recipes that flowed from Aunt Betty's kitchen to my mother's.) Aunt Betty's husband came along with his mother, who lived basically next door to the young couple. I know that Aunt Betty learned a great deal about cooking from her mother-in-law, who was born in Italy. But she also had to bear a great deal of...shall we say, oversight...in the daily workings of her marriage because of living so close by.

I am not clear on the exact details of how this all came to pass, but at some point, the mother-in-law moved. Whether she moved from her house to the smaller apartment above the store my Aunt Betty ran (and still has open), or whether she was moving out to Ohio to be near her other sons, I am not sure. In any case, a move was taking place. Most things were cleared out of the house. Aunt Betty went through the house and found a tiny little dish, a small bowl, that had been left behind. It was a small thing of little importance, yet still pretty. So she took it with her back to her house, and put it on a windowsill.

The next time the mother-in-law was in Aunt Betty's house, she spotted the small, tiny dish on the windowsill. The dish she had left behind in her own house, in doing her own packing and moving out. Something that was not really necessary or important for her. Yet, it was hers. She snatched it up and clasped it to her bosom and proclaimed, "That's a-mine!" Shaking her finger at Aunt Betty, she angrily said, "You no pluck-a da chicken before it's-a dead!" A bewildered and distraught Aunt Betty tried to explain that she had not meant to steal the dish - she thought it had been left behind - all to no avail.

Aunt Betty has told us all this story maybe a half dozen times. We have all laughed - we knew her mother-in-law, and could imagine this scene. Every time I heard the story, my sympathies were with Aunt Betty. What had she done wrong, to deserve such wrath brought down upon her head? And yet now, it seems to me, in remembering the telling, that Aunt Betty felt she should have taken the dish to her mother-in-law and asked her if she wanted it.

I don't know what the circumstances of the move were. I don't know how the mother-in-law felt about it, whether she was happy to move or not. But I have helped my mother relocate from the home she lived in, literally, all her life, to a room in an assisted living facility. She still owns the house, and we take her back to it to spend time there when we are able. I cannot imagine disposing of anything in the house without asking her permission. I grew up in that house, and I have a key to it now, and I even have power of attorney for my mother, so I'd have legal right to dispose of her property. But I just could not do it without her agreeing to it.

It is not my house. It is her house, still. Just because she lives in assisted living and is physically weak, does not mean she should not have any say over her own property.

Quite often, this is an inconvenient fact to keep in mind for family members charged with elder care. It takes so much longer, is so much more difficult and heart-wrenching to involve the elderly person in decisions about how to dispose of certain things, how to clean out or redecorate a room. But if the elder person is not senile, they have the right to make decisions about their own property. Merely having moved to an assisted living facility does not constitute resignation of all rights over one's own property.

This is true for even the smallest things - bits and pieces of memorabilia. You may be bothered by these bits and pieces of memorabilia, but they are not yours to dispose of - not yet, not till the elderly person is gone. For example, my mother keeps a box that is full of what we call "death cards". They are the small cards handed out at funeral homes, usually showing a saint or the Blessed Virgin or Joseph or Jesus on one side, and on the other, the name and dates of birth and death of the deceased, along with a short prayer. She has death cards going back to the mid-twentieth century. Some might think this an interesting historical document; some might think it morbid. But no matter what you think, you don't have the right to take it away or throw it out - because it belongs to Mom, and she wants it there in her house. If you think it's morbid, and it bothers you, either don't look at them, or find someone to talk to about why it bothers you so.

If you really, really think some piece of something needs to go, then you need to talk to the elderly person about it and ask them if it is okay to dispose of it. If you cannot bring yourself to do that - and even if you can - you need to ask yourself if that item really does need to go. Or are you just wanting to pluck the chicken before it's dead, because that's what works better for you.

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This is very much true - and we do tend to infantilize the elderly. It can be tough though - we had to take Eric's grandmother's car keys away from her after she did something very dangerous. She was simply not competent to drive anymore and we could not in good conscience allow her to - but she was furious, and I don't blame her. We tried to be as respectful as possible, but in the end, she lived with us, and we took her keys as though she was a child because she would not consent to stop driving. It hurt her badly - I know she forgave us, but I've never fully forgiven myself for not finding a better way - but I still don't know one.


Speaking as a renter, it never occurred to me that this was an issue -- I was sort of under the impression that if you had left things behind when you moved out, they were basically fair game. At least, I've never met a landlord yet who'd let you reclaim things that you'd left in the property for some indefinite amount of time. Maybe I've just had bad landlords.

By Interrobang (not verified) on 25 Mar 2010 #permalink

I don't understand how you equate your Aunt Betty's saving (and treasuring) her mother-in-law's left-behind dish with throwing it away or being disrespectful to her MIL. I recently experienced a similar situation in which my father, which whom I am very close, died suddenly and my mom offered some of his things (clothes) to my husband. There was a miscommunication about a trinket that we took, and my mom accused us of stealing. That accusation is one of the most hurtful things I've experienced. Keeping some of his things was supposed to be a way to stay close to him after having lost him, and yet here was this terrible association and hurt feelings that have now spoiled the comfort of those items.

I think your overall point is an excellent one, but what it has to do with your Aunt Betty's story is unclear to me.

@Sara, I think the basic issue is very similar between what happened to poor Aunt Betty and what happened to you: a mistaken assumption over who had the right to keep an item.
(Also, there is the issue of being respectful of an elder's wishes, even if you only understand it late.) Not that what you did was wrong -- or what Aunt Betty did was wrong -- but the misunderstanding of who was really entitled to keep what led to much hurt.

On my side, I've just had the opposite problem. I should never have trusted my elder relatives to dispose of their own belongings!

When my great-grandfather died, my grandmother disposed of his things. One of the things she threw away was a personal letter to my great-grandda from Jesse James -- apparently the letter mentioned that he remembered that he owed my great-grandda $10 from their last card game, and would pay up as soon as he was in the neighbourhood again. And apparently my grandmother read the letter in disbelief, said, "well, that's $10 we'll never see", and chucked it! @_@

When my grandmother moved out of her long-time house into sheltered housing, one of the things that she threw away was the cache of pre-1860s coinage the ancestral family had squirreled away in the basement. I found out about this only after it was already somewhere in the dump. There might have been close to $20,000 in rare coins in that, all other considerations aside.

When my father moved himself and my mother out of our long-time house into a smaller and more manageable place, some of the things he got rid of was the collection of art which had been drawn/painted specifically for him by the WWII political cartoonist and friend, Jerry Doyle. THAT was literally priceless; as far as I can tell, there isn't another collection like it on the planet. And I couldn't and can't recover it. Again, the ink drawings were already in the dump by the time I found out, and the paintings sold in a market somewhere. I remember Jerry well, and even if his work weren't so elusive now I would have liked to keep it; he was as sharp as they come and a genuinely good man, although he had a tragic personal life.

I find this kind of thing heartbreaking, personally. I don't understand why my ancestry have been so happy to dump things without making some attempt to understand what might be of real worth, first. But most of them have taken the attitude that the past is over, it's done, so there isn't any point in hanging on to physical bits of it. I guess that is healthy in a way....I just don't like the way it's taken to extremes, thoughtlessly.

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 25 Mar 2010 #permalink

Sharon, this is exactly what I am talking about - the infantilizing of the elderly, along with complete disrespect for their rights. Which, I think, is not the same thing as taking care for their safety. It is right to have that argument, as heartbreaking as it is, about taking away the care keys. Just as it was awful to have to confront my mom about the fact that she could not go on living alone in the home she was born in. But to ignore either of those issues would be irresponsible and uncaring.

This, however, is NOT the same thing as making executive decisions to dispose of the elderly person's property without consulting them about their wishes. In the case of the story my Aunt Betty related to us, it seems to me, upon reflection, that this much is true: the dish was missed or neglected upon packing up. Aunt Betty made an assumption about its not being wanted, also about it being nice enough to rescue and bring back to her own home.

But - and this is the important thing about my Aunt Betty - even though she intended no malfeasance in her action, she saw that her mother-in-law felt hurt by seeing the dish appear in her daughter-in-law's house. And upon reflection, Aunt Betty thought, perhaps it would have been better to ask the MIL about the dish, rather than just bring it straight to her house - even though it was a thing of seeming insignificance that had been left behind.

The point is, who knows what the MIL was feeling about the move, and seeing the dish in someone else's house may have evoked a whole set of emotions that had nothing to do with anything she actually felt about that particular dish.

So what I am saying is, it may seem a simple and uncomplicated act to us to dispose of a particular possession, keepsake, or even piece of paper. But we don't know what emotional significance that item - or its disposal - may have for the person who actually owns it. And it behooves us to remember that we are not, in fact, the owners of those items. We are the caretakers.

Luna, I sympathize with the losses you suffered. When my father's parents died, so much that was in their house was thrown out and even burned by his sisters, including letters from relatives back in the "old country". I was a kid - didn't even know the throwing out was going on.

Oof. Letters, yes. Windows into people's minds. That is a loss; words can make a connection across years that nothing else will.

On another note, we also had a problem with keeping Dad from driving, after he had his strokes, and we ended up not handling it as well as we might have been able to, too. But I have a hard time talking about that. It's still a bit raw.

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 25 Mar 2010 #permalink

What I regret about it is her perception that we stole her car from her - which, effectively, we did - and her independence as well. It was necessary, but it wasn't a good thing. In fact, it probably wasn't necessary - she became ill a few weeks later and then died in an accident only a month or two after. I wish I hadn't pushed the issue, given the timing, although of course, we didn't know that. Right before her death, when at the hospital, her cousin told me that she had been very depressed in the weeks before, and she'd known that there was something more than the death of her husband of 64 years a few months before, but that Grandma wouldn't say, and had told her how lucky she was to be living with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, even though she was terribly unhappy. I know that the thing that depressed her so was our pushing her to stop driving, and she was simply too kind to bad mouth us to anyone. But I wouldn't have blamed her if she had.

It is interesting, this post made me think of another thing, from another side of the family that I'd forgotten about. When my paternal great-aunt died, her sister (who had lived with her for 40 years - my grandmother left her abusive husband and moved in with her sister and brother in law to raise her two sons) was very gracious and graceful in her grief in every way, except that she accused my sister, when my sister arrived for the funeral, of stealing my great-aunt's diamond wedding ring. She did it immediately after the funeral, out of the blue, and in front of extended family in a very public way. It was a horrible moment - my sister never spoke to my grandmother again, and did not attend her funeral (which I think was wrong of her, but I do understand how humiliated and hurt she was.) No one really knew how to respond - the ring had gone missing, yes, but there was no possibility that my sister was responsible - most likely it hadn't come back from the hospital (I honestly don't know if it was ever found or not). It was such a bizarre thing that all of us were tempted to put it down to senility - even though she showed no other signs. Thinking about your post now, I wonder what the ring meant to my grandmother.

I suppose everyone has a slew of these stories...just musing.


As a 42 y/o female with no offspring or partner I think often of what my elder life will be like. I've also been playing career hopscotch & thus have no savings/pension right now. Hmm, sounds like public nursing home for me!
In a way this isn't too problematic, as I have moved constantly throughout my life and lived with roommates of all stripes, so the thought of another small room with a few of my things & something to read isn't all that bad for me. Especially if it is one of the places that at least has a cat. They'd never allow my rabbits in a nursing home. ANYWAY...
My point really is that I'm thinking about dementia and how delicately we tread in that regard. Having spent a little time in the locked floor due to some mental health issues, I'd say I recall very little of what went on, but I know my judgment was not good. I do recall staff having to tell me things about how to behave or what I could/couldn't do that seemed surprising & offensive at the time, but in retrospect I'm shocked had to be explained to me. We adapt to out new normal, and if you are in decline, mentally, no matter how subtle, you adjust your normal and peoples' interference seems scandalous.
How do you relate to the older person deep into "normalization", who isn't in touch with safety and realistic logistics of their life without seeming bossy, pushy, infantilizing, and worthy of resentment? It's a good question. I was lucky enough to recover & be able to see the disparity between my impaired state and a functional state, but what about people who won't make that shift? How do you get in & communicate without stepping on toes & souls?

How do you get in & communicate without stepping on toes & souls?

You know, Anna, I don't think you do. At least I haven't been able to with my grandmother (she has dementia).

Sometimes there IS no getting through, and we have to make peace with that or we'll spend way too much time trying to change what can't be changed. We can have respect for our family members but still do what must be done, even if it "looks" or "feels" like it's infantalizing. That's one place where intent DOES matter, I think.

Anna & Cara: Yeah, that. In the case of dementia, what my extended family has found is sort of that you have to bite the bullet and do something which you know will be horribly painful, disrespectful of the person's wishes, and suck it up. No, it's not nice, but when your other option is letting them starve themselves because they believe the CIA is poisoning their groceries or eat pie every 20 minutes because they can't remember that they just had a piece, you have to do something.

With my grandmother on dad's side, everyone let her stay in the family home, and eventually the dementia caused her to shun her children (they were evil, out to poison her and steal her lucky change jar) to the point that she stopped eating and eventually fell down from weakness or hypoglycemia or whatever, and died alone because she wouldn't tolerate anyone in the house with her. That was bad, the children were all genuinely tired of trying to be caretakers from a distance, tired of getting accusatory letters from new estate lawyers she had contacted who didn't know about the dementia and paranoia, tired of getting nothing but abuse for their efforts. They weren't very sorry when she died.

When my aunt started to show the same symptoms, her own children immediately looked for a nursing home skilled in dealing with dementia patients specifically, and got her in as fast as they could, so she would be able to settle in and retain some memory of the place as "home." Aunt Lillian was super-pissed at first, but then settled down and adjusted after a few months. Now she is quite happy, much happier than she was alone in her house: she has friends her age to help her walk to the chapel, she has group activities to socialize over, and when she does "lose herself" the nurses are understanding rather than the hurt and frightened reaction she got from her children.

It's not a perfect solution, my brother remarked on how our uncle never did adjust to the nursing home--he did not have dementia, but he was going blind in his old age and unable to walk very well in a Victorian house with treacherous stairways. He was ferociously angry at his situation, but then he was sharp as a tack with a very good memory, and he never did care much about socializing. Maybe it's the fact that the patient has dementia that loosens their ties to their previous surroundings, because they can't recall if they moved to this new place last week or last decade? Dunno.

Lovely post, Z. You know, the thought occurred to me, given the huge amount of thought and effort you have poured into the issues surrounding mindful loving elder-care--and the substantial amount of writing you have already done on it--whether you might think about writing a book on the topic. It would be timely, and maybe you'd even make some real fucking money off it.

Maybe it's the fact that the patient has dementia that loosens their ties to their previous surroundings, because they can't recall if they moved to this new place last week or last decade?

My grandmother thinks she works in the nursing home where she lives. She thinks the head nurse is her boss, and has whispered to me that she hasn't been given any paperwork to do in ages and asks if she should say something.

I think the place is a godsend. It's so nice to have round the clock care for her, and the people who do the caring can be kind but detached. It's not an emotionally charged situation like it is when it's family doing the caretaking.

Yes. This is exactly so. Not to mention that there are more than one or two of them, and they only have to put in eight hours at a time, after which they get to walk away and close the door behind them and go on to their own lives, and they get days off. I am not minimizing the labor these caretakers do - it is extremely difficult and they are not paid nearly enough for it. But they are not emotionally invested in the person in the same way the relative is. That's not to say they don't care anything about the people they give care to - I have seen, in my mother's case, that many of them do come to care a great deal. But it isn't the same, and that is a good thing for everyone.

My family had a similar situation about 20 years ago. It was a sad situation, and looking back it is fairly easy to see how it could have been avoided, but hindsight is always perfect.

After my great grandfather died, and my great grandmother was taken in by my grandmother, everyone held a big yard sale at the house and sold or gave just about everything away. There were a few things that my GGM specifically wanted to keep and these were kept apart from everything else. In the end there was a lot of stuff that was not sold, and the rest was boxed up and sent to goodwill (my great grandmother had actually told us to just throw away the stuff that nobody wanted). However, before these things were sent away the family looked through for things that they might want to keep, and my mother found a small porcelain statuette among the things to be sold, and she kept this.

About 2 years later, we had a celebration of my GGM 95th birthday at my mother's house, and while she was there she saw the statuette. It was in a case of similarly themed italian trinkets that my mother had been collecting for as long as I could remember. She was very angry, and she accused my mother of being a thief. We tried to explain to her what had happened, but she would have none of it. She ended up blaming my grandmother for marrying a non-italian and polluting the bloodline. It was quite a way to end the party, and she ended up dying only about 6 months or so after this.

My mother felt terrible about this for a long time, as it pretty much destroyed her relationship with my great grandmother. Most of the family has tried to make her feel better about it, saying that after leaving her home of so many years my great grandmother was angry about everything, and always looking for something to lash out at. My mother always believed that if she had just taken the time to specifically ask for permission to have this one thing then everything would have been ok. Likely it would have been, but on the same note, if she had thrown it in the trash everything would have been ok too. On the other hand, if my mother had asked my grandmother about an item that she had already said that she did not want, she may have been offended that she was being treated as if she were senile. I don't think there were any courses of action that would not have had possible sour consequences (except throwing it away... then no one would have said anything).

I have always sided with my mother on this, and almost everyone in the family always has too. But we have also not blamed my great grand mother. She had lived a long life, happy and prosperous, and that all seemed to have come to an end only a couple years before she died. She probably saw the small figure of the italian cook, and was reminded of the life that she had left behind. But we will never know now.

By prelevent (not verified) on 28 Mar 2010 #permalink

Another angle: my mother felt very strongly that her husband should be able to stay home, even as the dementia got worse. This was possible in part because of one paid, full-time carer who helped Mom take care of him for five years. (There were other people who came in now and then, but mostly it was my mother and Mel.) Mel was very broken up when he died, to the point that my mother was comforting her in the car on the way to the funeral.

Having the same paid carer--and caring full-time for the one person--is going to create an attachment in a way that the nursing home situation doesn't. I'm not saying don't do this--my mother and her husband wanted it this way, and Mel helped make it possible--but bear in mind that it can be significantly harder on the paid carers than a nursing home is.

Now, after his death, my mother is looking at home repairs, replacing a broken stereo and such--she didn't want to make changes while Simon was alive, because they might upset him. But it was their home, with furniture and such they both liked, so that was a nuisance rather than a major hardship.

My 94-year-old grandmother recently decided that she was done living in her retirement community, and that she wanted to move to an independent-living facility. My parents and aunt and uncle all went out to help her move and re-apportion her stuff.

Since it was all her choice (I think part of her reason for moving is that she's never liked cooking, and we would always nag her about making sure to eat real food, not just Ensure. The facility has a dining hall, so everyone's happy.) I think we avoided a lot of the stress and trauma of moving her and getting rid of her stuff. It also gave everyone a chance to put in their requests for specific items so that she can decide now what will go to whom when she passes.

My fiance's grandmother, of a similar age but not nearly so well off physically, has been very negative about the possibility of moving into a more supportive environment. She's so opposed that when something bad enough finally happens that she has to move, I don't imagine that she will live for very long after. And that's really sad, but I don't blame her for wanting to be in charge of her life.

By JustaTech (not verified) on 31 Mar 2010 #permalink